The Motivational Interviewing Technique That May Help You Keep Your Cool In Arguments

During a heated argument, you might take on the role of the logical debater or master eye-roller, but you may want to try playing therapist instead — sort of. A technique borrowed from motivational interviewing could be the key to navigating a verbal tug-of-war or dealing with someone who has different political views, without the conversation escalating to shouting and door-slamming.

According to Psychology Today, motivational interviewing is a type of therapy first introduced by psychologist William R. Miller. Compared to lecturing or giving advice, motivational interviewing allows people to form new conclusions on their own. The trick is to "interview" them with a series of thought-provoking questions to increase their self-awareness and motivation to change.

Motivational interviewing is commonly employed by counselors to help their clients overcome addiction and other unhealthy behaviors, though its techniques can also work in everyday life — such as during a disagreement with a partner or family member. Here's one way to use the method when agreeing to disagree just won't cut it.

How to use motivational interviewing during an argument

Next time your uncle makes a misguided comment about immigration or your sister repeats a birth control myth you know is bunk, resist the urge to explain why they're wrong. Instead, ask open-ended questions to better understand their point of view, like, "How did you first learn this information," and, "How does this issue affect you personally?" These kinds of non-judgmental questions are essential in bridging the gap between you and the other person, says Positive Psychology.

When "interviewing" the other person, switch off the need to be right and remind yourself that there may be validity to both your view and theirs, even if they seem to be polar opposites. "My favorite phrase that I encourage my clients to ask is, 'How can I be curious versus furious about my partner's views?'" Dr. Dana McNeil, a licensed marriage family therapist, told Today. "Learn why your partner holds the perspective they do."

This also requires leading with empathy, one of the principles of motivational interviewing. If a specific fear is driving their opinion, for example, attempting to invalidate that feeling will get you nowhere fast. Instead, try to understand where they're coming from, and look for any overlaps in your perspectives. The more they feel heard and understood, the more likely they'll be to listen to your side too.

Why the technique works

At the center of many fruitless arguments is defensiveness — as one person attacks, the other digs their heels in and defends their stance even more. Questioning each other, motivational interviewing style, is an alternative that allows for discussion, not defensiveness.

And for what it's worth, refusing to listen to the other person can be a form of defensiveness in itself. "If you feel like your partner simply isn't listening to you, showing curiosity in what you have to say, or attempting to understand your point of view, they could be acting defensively, too," couples and family therapist Tracy Ross explained to Well+Good.

Besides extinguishing defensiveness, motivational interviewing works because it encourages self-awareness. You may ask questions the other person never even considered. At best, they might realize that their belief was flawed after all, but even if that doesn't happen, you can at least learn more about their line of thinking. Keep in mind, however, that this technique doesn't always lead to a peaceful compromise. You could still be met with resistance (something that professionals using the method are trained to expect), or the other person may not be ready to open up and answer your questions. Remember: Conflict is a journey, not a battle to win.